Community Mural Painting at Tillie's

Last year, I interviewed local artist Ellie Balk as part of the "Personal Profiles" series (which will hopefully be resurrected soon -- if you have any ideas on what you might like, please email me!). She mentioned how she hoped to work with Tillie's to create a community mural -- a map of the neighborhood on which all local residents would be invited to paint a dot on the location where they lived, illustrating how close we all really live to one another and how much the neighborhoods nearby are connected. After many long months of working with Landmarks and raising money and applying for grants, Ellie is ready to begin! tillies-mural-for-sonya-web.JPG

Save the date, as the main citizen participation day will be Saturday, June 21.

Here's the info from the press release:

Tillie’s of Brooklyn is proud to announce the painting of a community mural on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the store, now an empty brick wall at the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb Avenues in the Fort Greene section of the borough. Partnered with the newly created SONYA Mural Arts Project, artist Ellie Balk will paint a 9’ circle map of the neighborhood on the wall starting Friday evening, 6/13. Over the course of a week Balk and a crew of volunteer artists from the area will paint the map on the wall. On Saturday, June 21st from 12:00 p.m. to 6 p.m. the public is invited to participate by putting a dot in the spot where their home is located. Tillie’s will serve refreshments on 6/21 at the dedication ceremony.

South Of the Navy Yard Artists (SONYA) has partnered with Ellie Balk to create the SONYA Mural Arts Fund, which will be used to create and implement murals and public art projects that support the youth and neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The initial goal is to raise $5,000 towards the completion of its first project and the development of future murals. The public is invited to make tax-deductible donations by visiting SONYA's website: and clicking on "donate", then noting "Mural Arts Fund" under the special instructions, so that the funds can be allocated properly.

Artist Ellie Balk, a neighborhood resident and artist who specializes in community-based projects, explains: “The goal for the Tillie's Community Mural is to unify and bridge the varying aspects of the local community, giving all people a sense of connectedness. The mural will go up at the point where our neighborhoods meet, at the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb: Tillie's has become a home base for many Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill residents.”

With fiscal sponsorship and support from SONYA, this mural has been funded through a grant from the Puffin Foundation and with generous support from the Society for Clinton Hill. It is also supported by: the Landmarks commission of NYC; the Community Board of Kings County; building owner Danny Browne; Tillie's owners, Patricia Mulcahy and Amos Yogev; and many enthusiastic community members. Says SONYA’s president, Kathleen Hayek, “We are excited about the Tillie’s Community Mural and would very much like it to succeed and be the catalyst for many more mural projects within our community.”

To learn more about Ellie Balk’s projects and background as a mural artist, see For all other inquiries contact Patricia Mulcahy at 718 783-6140 or at


Clinton Hill: Personal Profile

(Yes, we've taken a long hiatus with this, but will hopefully be back on a regular schedule!) chb-pedicure-profile-banner.jpg

Name: Melita Charles Clinton Hill Resident For: many years!

A few weeks ago, I met up with Melita Charles at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn to enjoy Mint Candy pedicures and chat about her history with the neighborhood.

Clinton Hill resident and general surgeon Melita Charles is making her home here for the second time. After med school and a stint upstate, Charles has come full circle.

Melita and her family originally moved to Clinton Hill from Sunset Park the summer before she began high school. She remembers being awed by the wide streets and taking long walks to downtown Brooklyn along DeKalb Avenue, or over to Pratt to buy art supplies, even though not much was open back then. She and her family lived in an apartment on Clinton and Gates, where her sister still resides.


Even though the neighborhood saw higher crime rates back then, Melita remembers feeling comfortable. "I saw somebody get mugged once, but otherwise we felt safe. The same three old people were always sitting outside in front of our building checking in on people," she explains. "My sister and I used to make fun of them for not having anything better to do, but at the same time we were glad to know someone was looking out for us."

Melita graduated from Stuyvesant High School, knowing from a very young age what she wanted to be when she grew up. "My Aunties were all nurses, but I always wanted to be a doctor," she says. Attending Ithaca College, Melita chose to pursue general surgery during medical school. To complement her surgical training, Melita completed additional training in surgical oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. It was there where she met my mother, a patient at the center, more than eight years ago.

Melita enjoyed Buffalo, but missed New York City and her family. Eventually, she made her way back east, living in both Queens and on Long Island. One morning, she claims to have had an epiphany in the shower. "I should move back to Brooklyn!" she thought. Initially, she made a beeline to Park Slope, a neighborhood she thought many professionals aspired to. Once there, however, she felt the neighborhood was both too expensive and "too much." It was not the right fit. She started hunting obsessively for real estate across the borough, finding everything she saw to be too small and just not right for her. It was a fluke that she happened to check out a spacious apartment on Classon Avenue. "Why didn't I start here to begin with?" she asked herself, "It's where I've always wanted to be!"

After several years away, Melita feels like she's back in the same neighborhood she grew up in despite all the changes the area has seen. A few establishments still remain from her teenage years -- the diner on Vanderbilt and Fulton for example, and the bodegas, which she affectionately describes as "indestructible" -- but she points more to a general feeling. "Clinton Hill has always been a little enclave," she explains. "Once you cross Fulton, you know you're home."

Melita's current regular haunts include Chez Ozkar, iCi, Zaytoons and Luz. "I love Luz!" she says. "I frequently take people there for a drink or a date, because I know at least I'll have a good time," she explains with a chuckle. She, like many residents, years for a gourmet cheese shop, a store for fresh produce and a bakery (she laments the closure of a bakery from her childhood that used to sell great peach cobbler).

Melita now works as a general surgeon at Long Island College Hospital. She loves walking to work, often past the Farmer's and Artisan Markets in Fort Greene Park.

"I'm glad I ended up back here," she says. "It's really just more 'my speed.'"

Clinton Hill: Personal Profile

chb-pedicure-profile-banner.jpgName: Ellie Balk Clinton Hill Resident For: 4 years

On June 19, I met up with Clinton Hill resident Ellie Balk at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for Coco Kiwi Pedicures and a bottle of il Mimo, donated generously by the Greene Grape.


Drawn to Brooklyn for graduate programs at Pratt four years ago, artist Ellie Balk has made a home in Clinton Hill. Balk still lives in the St. James Place studio apartment she found on her first day of apartment hunting, and has just signed on for another two years.

Balk is both an accomplished painter and art teacher, and has long been a proponent of collaborative creations. When she teaches, Balk encourages students to put marks down on paper and then react to them, encouraging people to open up, moving physically and emotionally.


Much of Balk’s energy is spent on designing murals for public schools and local communities. Often times, she will encourage participants to begin painting whatever they’d like. Throughout the process, Balk controls only the available paint colors the participants are using, giving them access to colors of similar tones and families for different periods of time to help create continuity. Later, Balk and a few other artists add finishing touches, tying the community’s creations together into one unified final product.

dscf1089.jpg While most of Balk’s community murals are painted on walls, she must occasionally improvise. During last summer’s St. James Place Association block party, Balk was forced to conduct mural painting on paper at St. James and Gates, after the owner of the corner’s scaffolding decided not to allow painting directly on the wood. Neighbors took part enthusiastically regardless, even bringing their own paper from home to add on to the growing design. Mural painting lasted for twelve hours that day, attracting the attention and participation of countless neighbors and passers by. Balk not only coordinated the mural’s painting, but also procured all of her supplies ahead of time by soliciting donations. Sisters Hardware on Fulton came through in a big way, as did local residents.


Many of Balk’s community murals are created in the shape of a circle, symbolizing the idea of getting back what one puts in to their surroundings. “You need to know your community to be a part of it,” Balk explains. The circle seems to represent Balk’s personal ideals, and she sports several tattoos of the motif. Currently, she is working with Tillie’s on planning a circular community mural on the building’s side, at Vanderbilt and DeKalb. Both the owner of Tillie’s and the building owners’ are on-board, but Balk is waiting for final approval from Landmarks. Unlike her block party mural, Balk will paint most of the mural herself before the public contributes. She plans on painting a large map of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and then allowing members of the community to paint a small mark over where they live, a technique she uses often in school murals. “When people look at the map, they see how close we really live to one another,” Balk says. “Tillie’s is the perfect location for painting the map, at the crossroads of these two neighborhoods.”


To sit with Balk is to understand what makes urban living so appealing. Like so many people, she really “gets” what our neighborhood is about, and is able to articulate it through both words and actions. The circle motif makes perfect sense for Clinton Hill, with a diverse population of individuals like Balk stepping up to integrate their interests into the community.


Balk can be found frequenting local haunts often, citing “The Red Door (her name for Grand 275)” as her favorite hangout. “Luz has the best brunch for sure, and Olea is the best date place – so chill!” She mentions Zaytoons and Castros as well, before exclaiming, “I love my Fulton!” I look at her skeptically, but she’s not joking. “Kush is great, and Joloff? It’s my cure. They cook everything to order and their hot ginger drink is an instant pick-me-up when you’re feeling sick.” Later, Balk gives props to the Pratt Coffee shop for “sincerely taking care of her hunger needs for the past four years.”

On local restaurants and shops in general, she says, “You can just feel something precious [inside]. Someone loves this space and is sharing it with me. The genuine feeling is the whole theme of the neighborhood.”

Balk loves the diversity of Clinton Hill, especially on her street, and explores often. “I go for a two-hour walk, and it’s never the same!” she exclaims. If Balk were a flavor of ice cream, it would be "Cinnamon," she says, "'Cause I'm sweet and a little spicy!"

dscf1091.jpg Ellie Balk recently presented her paintings at RePop’s First Fridays, and will be featured at Tillie’s this fall. Click here to view more of her work.

Clinton Hill: Personal Profile

chb-pedicure-profile-banner.jpg Name: Karen Schwartz Clinton Hill Resident For: 3.5 years

(Thanks to the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for providing their space for the interview, as well as Essie pedicures, and to the Greene Grape for providing a bottle of Arregi Txacoli Getariako Txakolina 2006) On May 15, I met up with Karen Schwartz at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for Essie pedicures, a bottle of Arregi Txacoli courtesy of the Greene Grape and mini cupcakes (it was Karen’s birthday!).

wine from greene grape Karen, a yoga therapist, has lived in Clinton Hill for three and a half years, but spent the previous seventeen years in the same Upper East Side studio rental. Why did she move? “Because the ceiling fell. Literally!” she exclaims. After an unfixed long-term leak, her studio’s ceiling came crashing down. Two days later, she bid on her current Clinton Hill co-op. At the time, she didn’t know much about the area but its special differences became apparent very early on. None of Karen’s Manhattan neighbors had checked up on her despite hearing her ceiling fall in, but her current Clinton Hill neighbors call her out of concern if they don’t see her for a day or two. “There’s so much beauty here,” she says. “It’s great to walk around, and you can just say ‘hi’ to people.”

A native of the “Boogie-Down Bronx,” Karen and her family moved to Queens when she was in 6th grade, and she attended junior high and high school in Manhattan. The diversity of her neighborhoods and attendance at public schools strongly influenced her decision to become professionally involved in community life, though she didn’t end up there immediately. After a college journalism tenure focusing on social activism, her first professional experience working for a jewelry trade magazine left her less than inspired. Schwartz returned to school and obtained a Masters Degree in Social Work.

dscf0883_resize.jpg Focusing on clinical social work, Schwartz worked first with teenagers in foster care, and then on the Lower East Side focusing on dropout prevention. She also began teaching fitness classes and studying dance, which led her to her first yoga class. “I thought, ‘This is so hard!’” she explains. “But I couldn’t wait to go back.”

Schwartz says it took two years of yoga classes before she felt like she “got it,” and began to realize how many levels the practice operates on. “The physical is only a small part of yoga,” Schwartz says. “You can’t quantify everything about yoga. That is its essence.”

Schwartz began making some connections of her own, realizing how greatly yoga practice would benefit many of the people she encountered day-to-day as a social worker. “The current popularity of yoga is wonderful, but it’s often designed for people who are already in shape,” she says. Recognizing an evident gap, Schwartz has turned her career towards yoga therapy. “It’s not a replacement for other kinds of therapy, but rather a supplement.” Schwartz’s work has not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood, as she was nominated for the Personal Profile series by one of her local students: “What is particularly impressive about Karen is that she can teach at all levels. She is able to encourage new students so that they don't feel that yoga is beyond their ability while guiding more advanced students to new challenges. Karen was able to show me how to develop flexibility and strength that I didn't think I had.” Schwartz has clearly incorporated her life’s work into the community.


Currently, Schwartz focuses her career on one-on-one yoga therapy and conducting workshops for small groups, allowing her to assess each client’s individual needs and fitness level. She volunteers as much as time allows, providing valuable services for those who don’t traditionally have access to yoga. As part of this initiative, she has conducted yoga classes for senior residents in her building and has submitted a proposal to teach volunteer classes for the American Cancer Society; she also intends to work to a greater extent with abuse survivors and those suffering from eating disorders. Her work has truly come full circle, incorporating many of her life’s passions. A highlight of her work as a yoga therapist? “Making a connection with my students. It’s great to give them something to take with them afterwards.”

dscf0886_resize.jpg When she’s not teaching, Schwartz loves to enjoy the diversity of her surroundings. Dining out, Schwartz favors Luz hands-down, which she describes as having, “Great food and vibe, and they have a Tempranillo I just love!” You’ll also see her frequenting Olea, as well as enjoying a Café Moche at Pillow Café’s new space on Myrtle. “When I'm hanging out in the neighborhood I like to walk around and look at houses, relax in Fort Greene Park, and go to movies at BAM, especially the film festivals and other special cinema events they have.” And, of course, the ice cream question. “Haagen Dazs Deep Chocolate Peanut Butter, because it doesn't hold back!”

Schwartz has just launched a new website,, which further details her work in yoga therapy. She also teaches mixed level/open yoga classes at Lucky Lotus Yoga on DeKalb.

Clinton Hill: Personal Profile

chb-pedicure-profile-banner.jpg Name: Aissatou Minthe Clinton Hill Resident For: 10 years

(Thanks to the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for providing their space for the interview, as well as a paraffin manicure and a chocolate pedicure, and to the Greene Grape for providing a bottle of Burgans Albarino 2005) Aissatou Minthe and I sat down over wine and took pleasure in some pampering on April 10 at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn. While she slipped on some heated mitts for a paraffin manicure, I sat back and enjoyed the indulgent chocolate pedicure.


Aissatou Minthe is the fashionable Frenchwoman who owns Tessan Boutique, the tiny clothing and accessories shop on the ground floor of a brownstone on Clinton at DeKalb. She lives and works in the building.

I’ve often wondered about the French population in the area, since there seems to be a very high concentration. It was, in a way, what brought Minthe to the neighborhood. She first arrived from Paris, where she was born, to go to college and moved in with her boyfriend at the time in Fort Greene. She’s lived here ever since.

Minthe believes that the first French restaurant to open, Chez Ozkar, brought the French expats living in the neighborhood together for socializing and sharing. A Table and Café Lafayette followed, making the area a place in which the French felt comfortable. She laughs, saying that there are perhaps, “too many French people,” here, and how the French community often referred to Fort Greene as “French Greene.” (Moments earlier, she had recognized a friend in one of the pedicure chairs and the two spoke at length in French.)


Though born in Paris, Minthe feels a deep connection to Tessan, the village in Senegal where her mother was born. As a child, she and her siblings traveled to the village each summer with their parents to stay on her grandfather’s farm where he grew peanuts, corn and other vegetables. It was a peaceful experience for her, as Tessan was and still is very much a traditional African village – residents gathered water from a well and no one had electricity.

Minthe named her boutique after the village and as a tribute to her parents and family for being open-minded despite coming from a traditional background. While she hopes to eventually move to a bigger space, she plans on keeping the original location open as well. “My people remember what they come from,” she said, explaining her attachment to the storefront. The small space also creates an intimacy. On the weekends, the shop becomes crowded and shoppers often engage one another with personal stories or ask for advice.


Minthe spent a few years as a social worker, and had originally hoped to go back to school to design shoes, handbags and jewelry. Now, she sells them. “There was no time in my schedule to go to school while I was working, so I did it the other way around,” she says. “The store is small, and it used to be a storage space! My landlord knew I was looking for a space, and offered it to me. I decided to use the space to try this out.”

I asked how she chooses what she sells, given her limited square footage. “I choose clothing and accessories that go with everything, things that are very simple,” she explains. “Clothing to hang out in. Whatever a woman needs to feel beautiful.” Minthe also makes a point of selling items handmade by Clinton Hill residents, including hats and scarves by Nicole Tavares, twilight hats by a neighbor named Michael and jewelry from women named Masani and Karrie who live in Clinton Hill. Often, the local designers are people she’s met before in the area after admiring their personal styles and projects.

Minthe’s favorite aspect of Clinton Hill is its diversity. “It’s a small community,” she says. “Everyone knows one another. There is so much to do, but yet not a lot to do. You can just relax in the park doing nothing if you want, just like a small village!”

Minthe also waxes poetic about the local business community. “I’ve had a good experience opening the store here. I’ve received lots of help and encouragement from other entrepreneurs. It’s also very cool that so many women in the area own their own businesses. It creates a real solidarity. There are so many unique stores in the area, each with a different style!”

I asked her about some of her other favorites, of course. “For lentil soup, my favorite comes from Black Iris. Chez Oscar has the best Nicoise Salad. Cafe Lafayette has an amazing chocolate volcano. For quality cuisine, iCi. Djollof, on Fulton and St. James, has the best Senegali food! It’s like eating at home. And the best-kept secret in the neighborhood? A Bistro.”

Finally, I asked her what flavor of ice cream she would be and why. Minthe had her answer right away. “Chocolate! Because it’s sweet. Sweet and strong.”